MADRID (Bloomberg) –A battle of words between top Russian and U.S. diplomats this week is the latest sign of rising tensions between superpowers racing to seize Arctic resources made more accessible by climate change.
Ministers gathering in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik for a meeting of the Arctic Council weren’t due to discuss security. But the issue dominated conversations on the sidelines after Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov declared ahead of the summit that the Arctic “is our land and our waters.”
“We are especially concerned with what’s going on close to our borders,” Lavrov said on Thursday after journalists asked him about what Russia sees as increased U.S. military activity in the region. “We are going to undertake necessary measures in order to ensure our security, but our priority is to ensure dialogue.”
At the summit this week, which marked Iceland’s handover of the Arctic Council presidency to Russia for the next two years, most representatives called for the eight-nation body to remain focused on peaceful cooperation. But Lavrov signaled that Russia could take a different approach.
“Within the next two years we will create proper conditions so proper security will be part of the work of the Arctic Council,” he said. “We believe we can revitalize this mechanism if we decide so.”
The Arctic is one of the regions most affected by climate change and is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world. Ice that used to cover the region’s waters for most of the year is shrinking and thinning. That’s opening new shipping routes and creating the prospect of easier access to once-trapped resources such as natural gas, oil and minerals.
Superpowers including Russia have rushed to claim some of these assets, leading to a stronger military presence that has resulted in a series of confrontations.
Last year, Russian planes buzzed U.S. fishing boats on the northern Bering Sea during a military exercise. In February, the U.S. deployed bombers to Norway for the first time, strengthening its presence in the region, and the two countries signed a new agreement in April to boost military cooperation.
“The Arctic as a region for strategic competition has seized the world’s attention, but the Arctic is more than a strategically- or economically-significant region” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the Arctic Council’s meeting on Thursday. “Its hallmark has been and must remain peaceful cooperation.”
The council, which gathers the eight Arctic nations— Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S.—as well as indigenous peoples, has no mandate to address security matters. These used to be negotiated at a separate Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, but Russia was removed from that forum, as it was from the Group of Eight advanced economies, following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The region doesn’t have a history of military conflicts because it’s difficult to access and its harsh climate makes it hard to position soldiers there. That’s changed as ice melts and countries try to get a foothold in the area, said Kate Guy, a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, a Washington-based nonprofit.
The Arctic is home to about 30% of the world’s undiscovered but recoverable gas reserves and 13% of undiscovered oil reserves, according to a report co-authored by Guy that was published this week. Private shipping activity has increased 25% in recent years. Having more tankers and fishing boats in the waters could lead to more accidents, with search and rescue operations often performed by the military, the report found.
Russia is making the so-called Northern Sea Route, which runs along its Arctic coastline, a key part of its strategy to boost natural gas exports to Asia. At the same time, China has signaled its interest in small islands such as Svalbard, Guy said.
Armed forces are also upgrading their facilities in the region as permafrost, the frozen ground that covers most of Arctic land, thaws. The U.S. Department of Defense has already requested over $1 billion to retrofit and repair three Alaskan bases in the past five years, according to the report.
“We’re concerned about the level of recent angry and provocative rhetoric,” James Stotts, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Alaska, said at the summit. “We don’t want to see our homeland turned into a region of competition and conflict, we don’t wish to see our world overrun with other people’s problems.”